Kelly Olynyk was frustrated.
Mark Few was frustrated with him.
What the world sees now, of course, is a different story. Gonzaga’s 7-foot gazelle of a center will lead the top-seeded Bulldogs into Saturday’s West Region third round against Wichita State. Olynyk is an All-American. He averages 17 points and seven rebounds per game. He is perhaps the best all-around big guy in the country.
It was nothing like that two years ago. Olynyk was stubborn then, in love with his vast skills on the perimeter. He refused to take his game inside the paint. Few countered by declining to hand out minutes simply based on potential. Olynyk sat while Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Sam Dower saw major minutes in the two frontcourt spots.
“We weren’t on the same page a lot of the time,” said Few, Gonzaga’s coach. “He was kind of stuck. We had a logjam of good players, and I think he realized that he wasn’t where he quite wanted to be physically or in his skill development.”
The decision was made for Olynyk to redshirt last season. Players usually redshirt at the beginning of their careers, when they can work to get bigger and adjust to the college game. Not midway through their college career.
But it’s something Olynyk embraced, living in the gym long after his teammates had vacated. He played on the scout team in practice, a humbling experience for almost anyone. He spent a season being largely invisible, sitting on the end of the bench during games. He worked on himself as much mentally as he did physically.
“I was able to see the game from a coach’s perspective,” Olynyk said. “A lot changed over that redshirt year. It gave me the opportunity to work on my game. I got into the weight room a lot. I wanted to change my body and make myself a threat all over the floor.”
The results were remarkable. Olynyk, a native Canadian, has become a matchup nightmare, the rare big man who can score 20 feet from the basket as well as he can in the lane. He runs the floor like a guard, supplying a big target for point guards Kevin Pangos and David Stockton on the fast break.
He’s a factor defensively for the first time, blocking shots and grabbing difficult rebounds in traffic. He’s almost a lock to become an NBA lottery pick, if the junior should decide to make himself available for the draft a year early.
“He brings so many different pieces to our team,” Pangos said. “He’s such a leader out there. He’s so versatile that he can play anywhere on the floor.”
To think, Olynyk averaged 5.8 points per game two years ago. He says that not playing was difficult. There were times when he wondered if he had made the right decision. But he knew that playing time would be much more available if he did the right thing because Sacre moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers.
His friendship with Pangos and Harris helped during rough times as well. Without Olynyk, Gonzaga was a good team. With him roaming the court this season, the Bulldogs have been at their best since the Adam Morrison days. Now, there’s talk about Few’s team making it to the Elite Eight or further for the first time since 1999.
“He’s like a graduate assistant now,” Few said. “He’s so smart, and that year helped him so much. He added to his game, and I think he started to value scoring around the basket.”
Kelly Olynyk file
• Was a first-team All-American this season.
• His father Ken is a former coach at the University of Toronto.
• Is a redshirt junior.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Wichita State
O EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 6:40 p.m.
TV • TNT
Records • Gonzaga 32-2; Wichita State 27-8
About the Bulldogs • Kelly Olynyk scored 17 second-half points to lead Gonzaga past Southern on Thursday. … The Bulldogs are the top-ranked team in the country. … Elias Harris scored just five points against Southern.
About the Shockers • The Shockers are one of two teams from the Missouri Valley Conference in the tournament.… The MVC is 2-0 in this year’s NCAA Tournament.